Taiwan, initially deemed defenseless against the novel coronavirus, is now winning the global fight against the pandemic. Among industrialized countries, Taiwan is a leader in containing the virus’ spread through quick government interventions of early detection and monitoring. As of July 14, 2020, Taiwan had 451 active cases and a negligible death toll of 7, with 440 recoveries. The tiny nation’s achievement in confronting adversities regardless of its industrial nature and geographical proximity to mainland China, Japan, and South Korea reflects its potent resilience.
Rise Amidst Challenges
A premier exporter of semiconductors and a leader in technology exports, Taiwan lags behind in formal international recognition owing to the strategic and economic influence of China over the island-nation. The ‘One China Policy’ adopted by Beijing, restricts Taiwan’s diplomatic outreach to sovereign states. Its current official diplomatic communications are considerably aligned and limited to tiny island nations. In addition to this, Taiwan holds unofficial diplomatic relations with 57 UN member states through representative offices.
China restrained Taiwan’s access to international bodies and employed sanctions accordingly to limit the latter’s sphere of influence. In 2020, Tsai Ing-Wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the elections for the second term with a popular mandate showing the shifting conceptions of the public opinions against China in Taiwan. Beijing observed these developments intently and developed countervailing strategies. Increased military drills, naval exercises, breaching Taiwan’s airspace, and propaganda measures through fake news are the new modus operandi of Beijing. It operates through conventional and non-conventional strategies against Taipei to manifest its vulnerabilities vis-a-vis China.
Contextualizing this, Tsai’s inaugural speech after the swearing-in ceremony clearly substantiates Taiwan’s standpoint ‘to leave Taiwan alone’. Amidst these evident challenges of limited diplomatic outreach, China’s lobbying efforts, and absence of allies, Taiwan’s effective containment and mitigation of threats from the COVID-19 pandemic are especially praiseworthy and can serve as a model to emulate.
As an economic and technological powerhouse, Taiwan has been able to capitalize on its expertise for public health and resilience-building measures. Primarily officials focused on tracing and tracking the virus by beginning a monitoring mechanism to observe the foreign travel history from December 31, 2019 onward. Under their Central Epidemic Command Center, which acts as a war room to coordinate different government ministries, the government controls the mitigation process which ranges from containment to border control.
As soon as the virus was reported in Wuhan, Taiwan started to halt the arrival of international flights. The know-how gained by Taiwan in managing the SARS outbreak in 2003 enabled the state to respond quickly. Taiwan’s initiative to adopt a technology-driven approach bore more fruits. Passengers were traced by their mobile phones, and this was intended to maintain effective quarantine measures. Through the National Health Insurance Card, the passengers’ travel history is being stored and shared with the health department for efficient detection. Despite misinformation campaigns from Beijing, the government’s role in educating people about the pandemic was successful. This accounts for a significant portion in terms of flattening the curve.
Taiwan’s Mask Diplomacy
In early January, Taiwan banned the export of face masks due to its deficiency and low levels of production. It only could produce 1.8 million face covers per day. By the end of the month, the Taiwan’s administration took great interest in manufacturing and increased the production capacity to 20 million masks per day, making Taiwan the second largest producer of face masks after the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan’s mask production has a strategic component; apart from its effectiveness in containing the spread of COVID-19, the small nation views this as a great opportunity to strengthen its ties with governments across the world. In the first week of April, Tsai announced the export of 10 million masks to the United States, European countries, and their other diplomatic partners. Later that week, she extended a helping hand to countries in Asia and European countries with a further allocation of 6 million masks. As reciprocity to Taiwan’s goodwill, the US, Japan, and European Union openly offered solidarity in collective actions against the pandemic. Taiwan’s COVID-19 strategy has been praised by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for its exceptional response in implementing monitoring mechanisms.
Taiwan has been successful in not only containing the virus domestically but in getting international exposure for its humanitarian outreach as well. This experience is worthy of deeper analysis to potentially adapt for many countries still battling with the pandemic. Yet despite the initial success, it remains to be seen how far Taiwan is able to take its quest for integrating with international organizations and UN member states.
This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).